By Brian Hawkinson
Executive Director, Recovered Fiber
The industry has a goal to exceed 70 percent paper recovery for recycling by 2020. The goal is part of AF&PA’s Better Practices Better Planet 2020 suite of sustainability goals.
In 2017, the paper recovery rate came in at 65.8 percent—and the paper recovery rate has met or exceeded 63 percent each of the past nine years. The industry is close to reaching the goal, but there are three trends that will have a bearing on whether we will be able to achieve it.
The first is the changing composition of the paper recovery stream. Old newspapers (ONP), which have historically been recovered at a high rate (76.6 percent recovery in 2017), are making up a smaller segment of the overall paper recovery stream. Over the past five years, the amount of ONP recovered for recycling has declined by 23 percent.
The second trend is the changing location of recyclable paper and paper-based packaging. This is especially true for corrugated packaging: with the growth of e-commerce, more consumer products are being shipped to homes in corrugated packaging and less is going to traditional retail establishments. The recovery rate for corrugated packaging is very high at retail establishments and varies by community for residences.
Increasing contamination of paper and paper-based packaging in the residential recovery stream is the third trend. Trash included in residential recycling carts and bins leads to increased time and cost to process the recyclable materials and leaves some hard to eliminate items, like plastic shopping bags, in bales of recovered fiber. When that happens, the value of the bales decreases and mills (in the U.S. and around the world) are less likely to want to use them to make new paper and paperboard.
While some trends pose challenges to achieving the 70 percent paper recovery goal, others are providing tailwinds. U.S. paper and paperboard mills consumed more recovered paper in 2017 to make new products—approximately 330,000 tons more than in 2016.
In addition, the industry is focusing on promoting increased recovery of corrugated packaging from residences by educating consumers about the importance of recycling corrugated boxes and how to recycle them properly.
Finally, local paper processors and materials recovery facility operators are making investments in sorting equipment to improve their ability to reduce contaminants and put better quality paper bales into the market.
So, stay tuned! The next three years will be an interesting case study in whether the positive trends can overcome the challenging ones so the industry can achieve its paper recovery goal.